When I set out to write this essay, I thought I was going to write a droll list of reasons why I could never have written a book like WILD.
The list would have included a story about me, a boyfriend from the city, the field behind my parents’ house which shone brightly under the full harvest moon that Labor Day — and what we swore later was a bear. We swore a lot as we raced naked from the beast to the mudroom of my parents’ house where the boyfriend greeted my parents the next morning wearing nothing but a parka and his Yankees hat. Yes, a bear was breathing down our necks and he managed to grab his Yankees hat.
I’ll have to save that story for another day.
I just read WILD again and realized that a discussion of the book deserves more honesty from me.
I am embarrassed to say that the first time I read WILD I was distracted by Cheryl Strayed’s lack of preparation for her journey. I was annoyed by her ignorance about how much to carry, what size boots to wear, how to use a compass — the very things that led to some of the story’s most dramatic moments. I found myself sitting in judgment of her choices when it came to drugs, to sex, to putting down her mother’s ancient horse with the inexpert help of her brother and husband instead of begging, borrowing or stealing the money to use a vet. I found myself cringing at the emotion that trickled, then raged like a river bursting through a dam.
As if I knew for one minute what one would need to carry or wear on an 1,100 mile trek. As if I had never had reckless sex or stood at a crossroads in my twenties. As if I had never considered for one minute walking out my door, getting in whatever car was running at the moment, and driving until I ran out of gas, and then just walked away from that too.
Not a lot of preparation involved in that scenario.
In my case, there was a child involved. I would not, could not leave him. Ever. In many ways, he became the compass, the navigator for the journey I had chosen. And in all honesty, back then, I would never have thought about hiking 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, snow, rivers.
These days, I think about it. I won’t necessarily do it, but I think about it. Or rather, I think about walking my own version of this journey.
As I read WILD for the second time, I realized my harsh judgments were rooted in a part of me I don’t like to visit very much. It is the place where I stash fear, envy, resentments, and regret. It is the place where I keep the young woman I was and can’t always forgive. I like to keep my distance from her. She embarrasses me. She can hurt me with memories of all the things I did to hurt her and others who loved me.
I retrieved WILD from my bookshelf after watching a small movie, Redwood Highway, about an older woman who walks from her assisted living community center to the Oregon Coast.
Their stories differ considerably. For one thing, Cheryl Strayed really did hike 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, rivers. Redwood Highway is fiction and the character played by Shirley Knight walks only 80 miles along a single road, detouring off the pavement into the woods to camp. Cheryl Strayed was 26. Shirley Knight’s character was in her seventies. The film based on Strayed’s book is going to make millions. Shirley Knight is the only good thing about Redwood Highway, a low-budget affair with uneven writing and a weak plot.
However, each story shows us a woman who sets out alone on a journey that demands much from her body and spirit but makes no promises about what it will deliver. Each woman experiences the wildness of packing a bag, slipping free of the people who would make her stay, and just starts walking because she understands that’s what she needs even if she doesn’t understand why.
In neither case were the women adequately prepared for all that came their way but both were ready. Each woman’s journey was hard, physical, and put her into direct, unshielded contact with nature, humans, and her own demons. We don’t get many stories like this with women at the heart of them, and we don’t get many about older women using their bodies to heal themselves by undergoing an ordeal. I was grateful for that story and I was grateful for the chance to go back and sink into WILD one more time, to walk with a young woman in places I may never see and see them through her eyes, to follow her memories as she faced her losses, made mistakes, made decisions she had to make. I remembered my own twenties with more forgiveness and empathy.
As I read WILD, I remembered reading DRINKING THE RAIN by Alix Kates Schulman. My mother read it and gave it to me back in the late Eighties: At 50, Schulman also walks but only on the Maine island she escapes to for a year, living as simply as possible without electricity, plumbing, cars, or the stimulation of her family and life in Brooklyn. I wonder now if my mother was trying to tell me something about her own need to feel what it was like to walk away, to test herself against the elements. I wonder if she was responding to a need she sensed in me.
Here is what I think now after reading WILD for the second time and remembering all of these stories: there are times when a woman needs to walk and to walk alone. She may not hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or live on shellfish and seaweed on a remote Maine island, or even walk 80 miles down a paved highway bearing a load of memories that are far heavier than the pack on her back. She still needs to do it. She needs to walk from the world she knows into one that is foreign and strange and scary. She needs to let in the wind, rain, sun, and to feel the blisters on her feet harden. She needs to let her body lead her sometimes and to trust it no matter her age.
She needs stories like WILD, and Redwood Highway and DRINKING THE RAIN to remind her of what she can do.
Then she needs — I need — to start walking.